Women’s work: Society, Storytelling, Technology (4)

We cannot live in a world that is not our own, in a world that is interpreted for us by others. An interpreted world is not a home. – Hildegard of Bingen

The above statue in Whitehall is a poignant reminder of the women of WWII who kept the country running but then were forced to hang up their uniforms and heroic identities, as Lillian Robinson puts it in Wonder Women, to return to domesticity, motherhood and consumerism. The men needed their jobs back and that was that.

Thanks to the massive propaganda effort, by the 1950s, it was accepted that a woman’s role was to help men. Anne Lamott illustrated this brilliantly in a recent podcast by describing how at a buffet at a social event, a man could not go up and get himself a plate of food, so a woman would go for him. He was far too busy, far too important thinking important things, so much so that when the woman got back, he might not even notice, he might not even say thank you for his food. He was too busy and important to notice and say thank you.

Lamott’s podcast was part of as part of a Sounds True series on Self-Acceptance, and the host, Tami Simon, said that it was the only podcast in the series which turned self-acceptance into a feminist issue. However, if someone doesn’t even see you to thank you because of your gender, when they have been given food by you, how can you see yourself and your gender as anything than less than? How can you feel acceptable? And, how do you learn to accept yourself when your sole role in life is to be ignored? Lamott said that it has taken her a lifetime to unlearn those patterns of unworthiness.

Marion Shaw says in Man does, Woman is, that women’s work has always been of low regard and lowly paid, and some women have been denied access to employment altogether. And, if as a woman you were able to get work in a domain outside of women’s work, then there was and still is the construct of being a woman in a man’s world and all the things that went and still go with it.

When I was a student, I worked on site at ICI. Women on the chemical plants were almost non-existent and they had not had a woman fixing PCs before. I had to prove my skills for holding down that job with each PC I repaired. Fast forward a few years, when I was on bridges in Switzerland, everyone downed tools and followed me about. One of the other engineers with me laughed at the amount of attention I was getting. Now older and wiser, I wonder why I didn’t question any of this. I had been interviewed and hired to do a job. I shouldn’t have had to prove my worth and my ability, each and every time I entered into a professional situation during the course of my working day.

During my first lecturing position, I was paid 12% less than the youngest male lecturer. When I asked the (male) Head of Department why as an older, more experienced person I was paid less, he got a bit nasty. I stood my ground and got a pay rise, but it was a pyrrhic victory, and still to this day saddens me, that a) I had to ask and b) I was spoken to as if I was being unreasonable for wanting to be recognised fiscally as someone equal to my colleagues.

However, my stories are tame. We have all seen the stories this week of Harvey Weinstein and recently, the sexist culture at Uber. Anecdotely, often on the playground at pick up and drop off, I hear disgraceful stories across all industries. In publishing, finance, the public sector, to name but a few, women have been pushed out, their jobs reduced or even taken off them. Recently one woman said to me, thinking aloud, on the retirement of a senior (male) colleague:

There must be something wrong with me, otherwise why would you give all your clients to someone junior to me?

And, that is what women do all the time. We question and doubt ourselves and we experience imposter syndrome, instead of recognising that we are being treated badly. We feel we shouldn’t be there, because for centuries, we have been told that we shouldn’t be there. And, it is so institutionalised across society that men just don’t even see women, and if they do they follow them around to oogle at their female form, or check that they can do the job, or they don’t think that they should be paid exactly the same amount of money to do exactly the same job.

I went to a series of seminars this year run by TRIGGER: Transforming Institutions by Gendering Contents and Gaining Equality in Research. And, whilst they are looking at ways to find solutions for tackling inequality, it is staggering that in 2017, these series needs to exist.

Some of the facts I got from the research which was presented there are as follows:

  • There is a 40% pay gap between genders in the Financial Services.
  • There is a definite gender bias in publishing.
  • There exists a male group think where women are not even seen, let alone considered.
  • Woman are penalised against in the TEF and REF.
  • Only 16% of women run boards and conferences, and even fewer are no doubt invited.

Yes, I have loads more facts but am too weary to type them all down because the rage and powerlessness I feel as I reflect on this blatant discrimination gets me down.

The government has spent millions on initiatives to get more women into the STEM professions but it remains that in my areas of Engineering and Computing (am capitalising English style): 15-20% of students are female but in my experience over the last two years it is more like 5%, 10-15% senior faculty are female, and 2% of professors are female. Research has shown that women are less likely to collaborate internationally and travel internationally. And, everyone is scratching their heads wondering why. Really? You really don’t know?

Personally, I believe that it is no good encouraging girls to go into these fields if you are not going to change the very nature of these fields. They are ripe for change. But, this would mean changing the whole of society and the view that men are legitimately allowed to be there and women aren’t and should be at home looking after the kids. Myself! I am too tired to fight and prove my worth anymore. I just want to tell any man who even dares to looks at me the wrong way to go forth and multiply, which of course I don’t, because then I would be deemed unprofessional and that I shouldn’t be there instead of recognising my behaviour as a righteous rage. I would never question whether a man should be there or not based on the way he looks.

And this is a recurring theme. Society recognises the legitimacy of men in a way they have yet to do for women. So, as a woman, please know that when you show up to work, understand that your status and hierarchy as a woman will not be respected, you will need to know how to influence too. And, you will need to be more visible too, e.g, yes be on a board, but you must be the editor not just a reviewer, as you will disappear down the cracks when it comes to promotion time, as no one will see at all the amazing contributions you have made. And, don’t have a career break, no, it will be detrimental to your career. I know my career definitely got messed up because of that gap – you know that one where I took time off to look after our future generations in that lowly unpaid role of women’s work.

It is exhausting and infuriating, and no man in any role even thinks about being seen and presenting and justifying the very space he occupies, before being allowed to get on to do the job he has been employed to do.

When I started thinking about this series one year ago, I asked many of the women I meet socially and professionally about it and many of them didn’t even want to think about the inequality of society, because it is depressing.

I have been mired down for months trying to write this blog series, and now I am here I am in a rage as I write. In spite of that, I am raising girls. I am raising girls and I want them to have better experiences than I have had in the workplace, I want their lives to be the great experiences that I can only dream of, because they are the future. So each time I look at my girls, those magnificent glorious expressions of the future, I put aside my fury and I research and I write in the hope of figuring out some solutions to make the world easier for them to be themselves in, because left to be themselves they will definitely make the world a better place in which to live, something I absolutely know for sure.

Women: Society, Storytelling, Technology (1)

The Mona Lisa in the Prado, Madrid

We cannot live in a world that is not our own, in a world that is interpreted for us by others. An interpreted world is not a home. – Hildegard of Bingen

At Easter, I was in the Prado Museum in Madrid when I wandered past this version of the Mona Lisa. Until that moment I hadn’t known it existed so it truly felt that I had discovered it, and I was able to look at it, through my own eyes and think my own thoughts without any expectation or expert opinion. It was overwhelming. It is a beautiful version and I am astounded anew every time I look at the postcard I have tacked up above my desk.

It reminds me of Philippa Gregory’s novels about the Tudors. They take the viewpoint of the women who played major roles during Tudor times but who were, because of the way society was organised, denied a voice, particularly the forgotten women like The Other Boleyn Girl, Mary; and Jane Grey’s sisters, Mary and Katherine in The Last Tudor. To coincide with the release of The Last Tudor last week, Philippa Gregory gave an interview in the New York Times saying that she was reading around the topic of medieval women with particular attention to how and why women get squeezed out of the marketplace, out of the law, and out of public service, and out of sight. I can’t wait to see what she has to say.

Just looking at the Mona Lisa, I already have an idea, for the original in the Louvre was labelled as Leonardo da Vinci’s handy woman. For the longest time, no one knew who the sitter was and no one really cared. It was all about da Vinci. The woman – it was decided around 2007 was probably Lisa del Giocondo – has been, for several centuries, an object on which people (let’s face it, mainly men) could project their own fantasies, which was why it was so refreshing to see a different version even though it remains symbolic of the position women have had in society for the longest time. They are silent, the muse of men, there to cater to the needs of men, treated like property, without autonomy, without legal rights. Women were powerless and helpless, and though things are much better nowadays, there is still a hangover from those days.

Life coach Martha Beck says: The most helpless feeling anyone can have in society is that of a little girl, when little boys cry they get called little girls. Little girls are at the bottom of the pile!

Things are changing slowly, with a lot of resistance. We only have to look at the fuss made over the next Dr Who and how a woman couldn’t play a time travelling alien with two hearts. Seriously? And the hatred expressed when Ghostbusters was remade in 2016: Ain’t no bitches gonna hunt no ghosts. I won’t even begin here my rants about the way women are portrayed in the media and in everyday conversation.

As a mum to girls, I feel that it is important for my girls to see a female Prime Minister, female leads in movies, female scientists, female sports women, female astronauts, female anything that my girls may want to be one day, because seeing a woman doing a job helps immensely. Even Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön says that she didn’t think she could teach Buddhism until she saw another woman teach it:

Before, I had felt there was no way could I ever do that, but now I felt like I could.

However, overall in technology and in academia in technology, where supposedly things change more quickly, there are still very few women. I have always felt about technology the way I feel about the Prado Mona Lisa, that there is no expectation and there is no expert opinion telling me, a woman, what I should and shouldn’t be doing or thinking as I spend my days absorbed in IT. However, not everyone shares my opinion. Recently, I was out socially and met several 20-something-years-old women who thought me doing IT was very cool but really hadn’t even imagined it could be a career possibility for them. And, the last two courses I taught this year (1st year undergraduate: Web Authoring and Databases) had only one woman in each course. It is sad to think that this relatively new and constantly changing field doesn’t have anything remotely approaching an equal men to women ratio.

On this blog I have written indirectly about women in storytelling and films but not in technology and just once in society which was really more about what I felt when I suffered through yet another bout of #mansplaining. I have put off writing up the research I have done, as one female academic friend summed it up perfectly by saying: It’s too depressing to think about.

So today, I am starting a blog series to look at women in society and in particular, technology to see if I can understand more about where we have been, where we are, and where we are going as women, so I can better explain to my girls how to navigate their way through this world to become anything they want to be. Wish me luck!

Creating space (3): Authenticity

I don’t sing because I’m happy, I’m happy because I sing
– William James

In Creating Space (2) I talked about how nine times out of 10 when people say things, it is not intentionally designed to hurt me. The other evening, I got text which fell into the 10th time category. My immediate response was to type a raging text back to vent my hurt and my anger.

I was about to press send and then I remembered these creating space blogs, swore a little under my breath, paused, and then I edited my response so that the texter and I could exchange the information we needed without everything escalating.

I am glad I did. Today as I type this, I have almost forgotten how hurt and angry I was, there is no emotional charge on that memory, whereas if I had gone ahead with my original text response I would have been still talking about who got last word and whose words hurt the most. Whoever said: Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me, has clearly never met my family.

Sometimes we need to imagine ourselves a little bit different to how we are in that moment – because there are so many versions of us, but we are aiming for our best – so that we can guide the outcome of a situation. It is almost like creating a space to give ourselves the chance to stay in that different state afterwards. We deserve that nice state.

Getting into a state

Neuro-linguistic programming (NLP), first invented by John Grinder and Richard Bandler, and extensively promoted by Tony Robbins and Paul McKenna has long promoted the belief that we can make changes in our lives to become more successful/thinner/richer by changing our states which changes our behaviour and thoughts, and then we can go on and also influence other people too.

Like most self-help books, I have always found NLP tiring, all that need to change myself suggests that I am not enough the way that I am and that I have to be something else.

Feelings, nothing more than feelings

Whatever it is, it is not the goal, it’s the way we believe we will feel when we have that goal. We don’t have to be different to achieve a goal, we just have to recognise what we want to feel, and then achieve that feeling.  

So it has been such a relief to read Danielle La Porte’s  The Desire Map Book, because she says that we want to be more successful/thinner/richer because we want the feeling of whatever comes with that goal: the feeling of power, sexiness or security. Whatever it is, it is not the goal, it’s the way we believe we will feel when we have that goal. We don’t have to be different to achieve a goal, we just have to recognise what we want to feel, and then achieve that feeling.

Rather like my text exchange, I had to identify what I wanted to feel after it was over and then act in that way.  Too often, we immediately respond to the world around us rather than pausing to see how we feel, and more importantly how we want to feel during a moment. This is so much easier for me than having to rewire my brain to be a different person.

Confidence, comfort, passion, enthusiasm

davidji says that we must absolutely get clear on what we want because we make too many decisions out of fear and desperation, or in my text case anger and hurt. He quotes the Bhagavad Gita: Yogastha kuru karmani and tells us that we must establish ourselves in the present moment, i.e., create space to pause in and decide on an outcome, before we act, if we want a better outcome in a given situation.

And, this advice is demonstrated by Amy Cuddy in her book Presence. She says that the people who were most likely to be awarded venture capitalist money were the ones who presented their ideas with confidence, comfort, passion and enthusiasm. These people did not spend their time in the spotlight looking fearful or desperate. Their belief in what they wanted sponsorship for came through in their voices, gestures and facial expressions. They were completely present in the moment and demonstrated authenticity. Cuddy says we can all do this. We can learn to tap into that state where we feel confident and passionate, when we need to, to rise to the occasion.

The authentic self

Semiotics teaches us that our only measurement of truth is if it feels right, that is to say: Does it ring true and fit with what we already feel? We live our own stories everyday and have our own knowledge and experience of storytelling so that when we listen to someone else’s story, if it doesn’t ring true then we don’t believe that person. This might be because that person is a bit off, a bit inauthentic, which could be that they or we don’t quite trust ourselves in a given situation.

We do this by learning that our authentic self is a state or space we can get into whilst honestly expressing our values.

Cuddy’s book and TED talk tell us that we can learn to trust ourselves by believing in our own stories. We do this by learning that our authentic self is a state or space we can get into whilst honestly expressing our values. So, Cuddy recommends faking it until we make it, or become it. Because, we are not really faking it, we are remembering ourselves in our self-affirming story.

The more powerless people feel, the more anxiety they experience, and the smaller they become. We need to create a space in order to become present, you have presence and you take up the space you deserve and require in any situation to give and receive the very things that the meeting, the text, the conversation came about for, in the first place.

Sometimes we get so lost in a moment, and we feel so desperate and afraid, we forget, why we decided to have that conversation, presentation, text.

Intimacy not intimidation

Taking up space and expanding in the animal kingdom is a way of demonstrating power and Cuddy says that this is not intimidation, for, if someone is too big we will avoid them, instead expanding and being expressive in a given space is a form of intimacy.

For me, the NLP approach which Robbins and McKenna use seems to have a very masculine flavour which needs us emulate the alpha male. Simon Sinek, takes a similar stance, he advises leaders to speak last, eat last – basically have the last word – a total demonstration of intimidation not intimacy. Again, it is an old-fashioned alpha male approach of domination, which makes me cringe, though Sinek says he wants to change the way industries function in order to take better care of their employees. You can’t do that if your leaders pull all the tricks to have the last word.

It is not about winning

It is not about winning! 

So, it is refreshing to have Amy Cuddy explain similar advice but in a different way. The reason we may want to slow down, speak slowly, and take a pause is, that it helps us expand and occupy the space we need in order to choose the correct and appropriate response without anxiety and without anger. We want to know that when we act and speak we have done so as our most authentic selves, the nicest selves we can muster, and that we take the time to think so we don’t do or say anything that we would later on regret. 

Whatever we say or do in any of these spaces, we want to leave them warmer and brighter than they were before we entered them. As we all learnt at school: 

It is not about winning! It really is about the taking part.

Designing story (5): Possession, the relations between minds

Sexy, funny, lovely: Still from Possession (2002)

He felt that he was prying, and as though he was being uselessly urged on by some violent emotion of curiosity  – not greed, curiosity, more fundamental even than sex, the desire for knowledge.  – Possession,  A S Byatt (1990)

[ Part 5 of 5:  1) The intimacy of the written word, 2) Structure, 3) Archetypes and aesthetics, 4) Women 5) Possession, the relations between minds]

I have read many a How to write a bestselling... novel/book/etc. I love them inexplicably, though, I have never written (or published) a novel/book/etc., bestselling or otherwise. 

In all of the how to books I have read, they identify the bestselling pattern, after the fact, after the book has been hailed as bestselling, which I think is cheating a little, especially as the author who identifies the bestselling pattern is never the one who has written the bestselling book under analysis. Personally, I would love to have someone write a how to, then wait a while, and then afterwards, publish a best seller. How cool would that be?

We all want to be seen, heard, and matter

As usual, I was wondering why the need to write (or publish) a best selling novel is so compelling and, why how to write a bestselling… books are so successful. Finally, the reason I came to is the one I always use for everything, probably now and forever, on this blog, in conversation, on social media, and it’s what I murmur during my sleep which is: We all want to be seen and heard, we all want to matter. So, if we write (or publish) a bestselling novel, then of course, people will take notice of us, we will be seen and heard, and we feel like we matter.

The closest thing that I have read to a how to by a best selling novelist is A S Byatt’s Possession and all the wonderful things she said about writing it during interview. Byatt said that she set out to write a bestselling novel. And, I believe her. It is very different from her other work. (Just an aside, if you are thinking of Stephen King On Writing, as good as it is, a) it is part memoir, b) he wrote it long after he had written many a bestselling book and, c) I’m psychic.)

I first read Possession in the midst of completing my PhD in Engineering and it was the only novel I have ever read before or since, that made me wish I’d stuck with my original plan of doing a degree in English Lit (I have A levels in History, French and English Literature and I have degrees in Computing, Artificial Intelligence,and Structural Engineering – I know!). Even today, as I am rereading Possession, whilst wrapping up this blog series, it still fills me with that yearning for things lost, you know the one.

A yearning that I’ve always known and always had

For me, it is brought about by the first spring evening when the clocks have gone forward, especially on a day like today (Mother’s Day) – a flash bulb memory causing you to remember all the other days you have lived through when you experienced that yearning, which somehow includes the promise of light, of life, of creation. Or, the other one which undoes me, sometimes in the middle of a pub, or a conversation, when I forget what I am saying because I hear a key change in a song, it might be a bridge, or include a certain phrase in a chorus, it’s that change which causes an uplifting and undoing all at once. It reflects a yearning that I’ve always known and always had, even before I had reason to yearn.

Possession makes me yearn too, for it is a fantastic novel of love lost, of lives not lived out loud, and it demonstrates all the things I have spent ages fathoming out whilst writing about what makes a good story, which begs the question: Did I write this blog series with Byatt in mind? I don’t think so. However, her desire to write Possession, began with the very nature of the question: If you spend time considering other people’s words then who possesses whom?  In Byatt’s words: Possession is about the relations between […] minds.

Truth is what feels right to us, the only truth we know

Possession starts with a familiar genre: the detective story. Byatt said she had been asked to review Umberto Eco’s Reflections on the Name of the Rose, and she liked the detectives, and how in order to destroy a library with fire, Eco had to design it so it could easily go up in flames.  To detectives she adds a quest for the truth after a serendipitous discovery of an unsent-beginning-of-a-love-story-letter in the London Library. And, then very cleverly she includes 1,700 lines of short story, poems and letters, so that we the reader find our own truth in these writings, knowing what we now know between the two authors, because truth is defined in semiotics, by what feels right to us. It is the only truth we know.

Mr and Mrs Smith in a B&B

Then, she describes the time and place so perfectly, we feel that we are researching too, in the British Museum, or that we are in Victorian times doing, as my mum would have called, a Mr and Mrs Smith in Whitby (alright: a euphemism for booking into a hotel to spend time together). Indeed, the still above is the two of them travelling up north in a train carriage, and it portrays that sense of intimacy which two people who have never been alone before, but who have corresponded for a while, experience on meeting for the first time, and which we sometimes feel online nowadays, before even meeting.

Archetypes and the twists in the tale

And, we have our archetypes: the academics, the feminists, the down trodden scholars, the women who endure, each which bring their own energy. Byatt provides twists on them, because although we like what is familiar, we want a twist in the tale. We want surprise and we want our archetypes to be just that – archetypes not stereotypes. The found letter is a catalyst, a herald of change archetype, for everyone involved in the story. And, to that mix, Byatt explores lesbians, spiritualism, and gothic grave digging in the present day and Victorian times to juxtapose living between the ages, with our liminal women who live enclosed lives, and our different ways of managing life, birth and death, influenced as she said by Henry James The Bostonians.

We feel the intimacy of the trip, the intimacy of a séance even written in the omnipresent third person. We feel happy escaping there, even when Byatt presents us with those polarities of life and death, of love and pain, of agony and ecstasy. She describes them exquisitely.

Creativity: sex, life, and rock and roll

I once saw Byatt at the Oxford Union and remember her saying that she reads The Lord of the Rings when she is ill because it is comforting, because it is asexual. I remember giggling a bit at the time. But, now I get it. I often watch The Two Towers when I feel too ill to do anything. So much of life is about creativity which of course is inextricably linked to sex, the ultimate act of creation, to life, birth, death, and all the big questions such as: Why are we here? So, no wonder, grappling with all that, everyone needs the day off feeling sexy sometimes. Byatt writes about sex beautifully too, yep I know you were thinking about it.

So, how is this answering the question I started with in Part 1: How do we design a classic story? The answer is, we write about the emotional truth of a situation. We write about what touches us most and we do so with an open heart, with vulnerability, we lean in and we love, and we capture it, along with our regrets and the things we mourn, with a sense of significance. Stories matter, so we must do it in a way that uplifts us so that regardless of what happens, we can still look on life with a shiver of awe.

Sexy, funny, lovely detective work

And, this is the thing about Possession, a lot of the reviewers said that the book had a big heart, as if it was a surprise, that someone so erudite could be so sexy, funny, and lovely, but Byatt leaves us clues all along, even fusty, dusty James Blackadder thinks about learning things by heart, as if poems are stored in the bloodstream, and then quoting Wordsworth: Felt along the heart. Byatt knows that we all want the same things. We all feel the same way. We are all experiencing the human existence, even the seemingly fusty, dusty characters (and that is just one point of view of a person) want to feel sexy, funny, and lovely sometimes.

And, we the reader spend the whole book reading the poems and short stories, and then finally, letters (which Byatt achingly holds out on us for the longest time) trying to see the sexy, funny, lovely parts of the interaction between the two people who wrote them, mentally intertwined but physically far apart, after their passionate time doing a Mr and Mrs Smith in a Whitby B&B.

And, don’t we do that with any book we read? Whether it is part of the English Literary Canon, the one that Byatt knows so well, and wears so lightly in this book that it dazzles us. Or, any other story from anywhere else literary or not? We are looking for a resonance, an intimacy, a connection, we are looking to fulfil our Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (‘cos I never miss a chance to mention that either in any blog I write). And once we close the book, armed with that new knowledge gained by violent curiosity, we too feel sexy, funny, and lovely, and can dazzle and feel dazzled in return, in and amongst the intimacy and connection which makes our world a brighter, better place.

Designing story (2) : Structure

 

Source: www.la-screenwriter.com

Some plots are moved forward by external events and crises. Others are moved forward by the characters themselves. If I go through that door, the plot continues. The story of me through the door.  If I stay here……the plot can’t move forward, the story ends. Also if I stay here, I’m late. – Prof Jules Hilbert, Stranger than Fiction (2006)

[ Part 2 of 5:  1) The intimacy of the written word, 2) Structure, 3) Archetypes and aesthetics, 4) Women 5)  Possession, the relations between minds]

In life, stories are the way we communicate, so much so that eyewitness accounts in court which conform to a story pattern are the most likely to be believed as truth.

In these uncertain times, thankfully we are questioning the news shown on TV and in the newspapers, because media companies have long used the old adage first uttered by Mark Twain: Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.

But, what is truth? Semiotics, the study of how meaning is created, is the only measure of truth human kind has been able to devise encapsulated in the question: Does it feels right? When the answer is yes, this is because the new data often fits with standard or known truths that we refer to already. It feels true, it is familiar, it adds to our understanding of meaning.

Meaning comes from contrast. The greek god Agon (agony) represents the struggle and wrestling we do in order to create meaning, from light and dark, good and bad, love and hate. We use polarity to organise our thinking.

It works the same way in fiction only in a tidier, yet larger than life, fashion. We have our goodies and baddies. We have our agony and ecstasy. And we, the readers, figure it out because we interpret the polarities and the story structure to derive meaning.

Narrative or story structure

The story of any individual in any narrative can be described in terms of deterioration or improvement, and the choice of which term to use depends on the point of view chosen by the narrator.

Normally we have a protagonist (our goodie) and an antagonist (our baddie) in polarity. As the goodie’s situation improves, the baddie’s will deteriorate. The narrator can invert this relationship and create a tragedy. When we are looking at the baddie as our main protagonist from that point of view, we are sympathetic to their plight, they become our goodie. If they do something morally questionable we go on an exploration with them. Often this a cathartic one. Their story helps us negotiate our own conflicts unconsciously or otherwise. Some of our most sympathetic characters are baddies, like Macbeth, nothing he does is admirable, yet we are there feeling for him until the end.

Sometimes the main protagonist gets improved by something coming in from outside the narrative. If this is near the end of a story then we can feel unsatisfied, because it does not feel true, like the Greek deux ex machina  (literally machine of the gods), the equivalent of then we all went home for tea. This rarely happens in life so it doesn’t feel true, unless it happens in comedy like Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim. In that story though it doesn’t really matter how our ‘hero’ gets saved as we know he would be much better off anywhere else than where he is. It is ok. Comedy aside, if we don’t get to live through the full range of emotions, we don’t get closure and we feel dissatisfied with the ending.

Closure is a psychological term first suggested in Gestalt which explains how incomplete shapes are interpreted by the brain as whole. From the 1990s the term has been used with respect to relationships. So, when a relationship is over, sometimes we need closure to find an answer especially if it ended ambiguously, so we can learn from it and manage our world or people next time, or so we like to think.

Managing expectations

This is because according to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs we need certainty. We need to feel certain that our physiological and safety needs are met, this in itself feels like a reward. Consequently, in a story we are rewarded by the plot unfolding in a particular way.

But, we are complicated and only want certainty up to a point. Social media shows us that the information we share most often is surprise. For more than anything once we have a low level of certainty we need to be lifted up and inspired. So, in any given story we want it to follow a specific path (certainty) but have surprise twists in the tale. This enables us to transcend ourselves.

It doesn’t matter what story is being told, it matters if it is being told in the right way. As Mythologist Joseph Campbell once said: We don’t need a why, we just need a how. The medium is the message or form follows function, the actual content is to a certain extent, irrelevant, as long as it hits the main beats and has the right scenes with enough surprises in them to follow the story pattern we are expecting but with a freshness that transcends both the story pattern and our thoughts.

We have models to explain the world around us, ourselves and our behaviour. It is the same when we are being entertained. We construct the pattern and the meaning as we go along so that even if a certain narrative merely infers something off screen/scene, we still know how to automatically assimilate it into the rest of the narrative to make it into the complete story. So, when something inexplicable happens either in fiction or in real life, it leaves us baffled and without a way of incorporating it into our explanations.

Ups and downs

The general pattern of life is that we work up to something, we have a beginning, a middle, a climax and an end. The momentum gets going, we have highs and lows – those moments of great joy and those moments when we think we can’t stand it a minute longer, in all of our activities from sex and childbirth to prolonged hospital treatment, shopping in IKEA, and even meditation. Our emotions follow this pattern too. Think of laughter, of crying, or a wave of grief. It is the same so it seems logical that our stories would follow a similar pattern.

Thriller editor Shawn Coyne in his book Story Grid refers to Kubler-Ross and the five stages of grief as a useful tool to model change, as all stories are about change and says: Even those wonderful literary novels in which nothing happens… the characters’ moods and ideas are constantly changing.

Patterns and genres

Depending on our reading tastes, we know the stories, we know which pattern to follow and it doesn’t matter where it sits on the often debated scale of entertainment: genre or literary, all action or internal, we feel when something is emotionally true because it is meaningful to us.

Here are some random patterns to think about:

  • Hero’s quest: The hero receives a call to action, goes on an adventure, has trials and tribulations, allies and foes, nearly falls at the end, returns home to great reward.
  • Chick lit:  The girl has problem in life, there is a cute guy, the problem becomes much bigger, everything looks bleak, she pulls it together as she is smart, solves her problem and gets the guy.
  • Thriller: Personal stakes life/ family/career are high enough to make the reader sweaty, often internationally the protagonist is chased about, has a show down with the antagonist, and wins.
  • Murder mystery:  There is a closed setting, a murder weapon, a body, detectives, we then find out the motive, the villain, and tie it up. We can even model it in  a computer (model-based machine learning).
  • Bildungsroman: A sensitive soul suffers a loss or tragedy, journeys to fill that vacuum with experiences,  gains maturity gradually, struggles then accepts values of society.
  • Love story: Two people meet, hit it off, something gets in their way, they are separated, and get back together at the end. Or don’t (tragedy).

There are many others: rags to riches, revenge, forbidden love, unrequited love, sacrifice, rivalry, disaster, recovery from grief, transformation, and so on.

Sometimes these patterns are combined into bigger patterns and in a different world created on another planet or fantasy land, or supernatural events occur. However, even if the landscape and events seems totally alien or paranormal, the emotions and behaviour of the characters are always human, always meaningful, and can always resonate.

If they don’t, we stop reading.

Formula or familiarity

It may seem formulaic but Christopher Vogler says in his book The Writer’s Journey: Unconventional art does not intersect with commonly held patterns of experience.

Rather like design, a certain amount of form is necessary to reach a wider audience who will expect to enjoy it so long as it has something fresh going on within the constraints of the formula. Vogler says that film studios use story design principles to evaluate scripts because they do so many, and the stories which capture us as an audience, capture our shared experiences:

We are all looking for ourselves in a dark wood, in the mirror of others, in the stories of life...

Which is why when we pick up a book or watch a film, we want to connect to a story which has meaning for us or at least for the characters in it, and that meaning is found in structure.

Part 3: Archetypes